Hard Luck: The Hitch-Hiker

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“This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours or that young couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual.”

Sometime in 1951 or 1952, actress,  director and movie star Ida Lupino walked into San Quentin and met a multiple murderer. The murderer was spree killer Billy Cook, a young man who killed six people in the span of 22 days by road and by car, posing as a hitchhiker, holding hostage and/or doing away with a nice mechanic (whom Cook spared), an entire family, and a deputy sheriff. He killed a dog too. That family who kindly picked up the stranger from the side of the road was traveling with their pet, and Cook felt that hound had to go. To be generous (and I'm not sure why I'm thinking so) this was either an act of mercy, or  Cook was even meaner and angrier and more psychotic than he had already proven to be. Not hard to lean towards that.

From what I read -- Cook unloaded their bodies into a mine and went on his homicidal way. He then held two men on a hunting trip hostage and demanded they drive him across the Mexican border to Santa Rosalia. Finally, he was caught. The Santa Rosalia police chief actually walked up to Cook and grabbed his gun, which almost sounds like something from a movie, but reportedly this really happened. Many things read like movies and this often feels wrong and cheap. Real-life should be understood as real life but some things are so horrifying, that we resort to movies – or movie images in our minds. Or nightmares.

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But the other dramatic element was (to use a movie term) Cook’s tragic backstory. As a young kid he was dumped off to die in an abandoned mine cave with his little siblings in tow (surely, this awful memory must have come to him when he disposed of that sad, helpful family and their dog). As a kid, he was discovered by authorities, the children were made wards of the state and set up for adoption. Brothers and sisters all found families. Cook, who had a deformed eye and a strange disposition, did not. The institutional hell Cook endured must have been ghastly and Cook became a young criminal. This is often how these things go. Then he became something beyond a young criminal...

Commemorating his lot in life, Billy had the words “HARD LUCK” tattooed on his fingers. There’s something extra chilling about the obviousness of that ink, marking him permanently with his past and his inevitable future, as if he knew that, whatever he did in life, he’d get caught and punished and didn’t care because, to use another obvious saying, he was born to lose. When you’re born to lose you have nothing to lose so, again, who cares? Let me have my revenge on a society that rejected me, even if these people don’t deserve it, and let them catch me, because I’ve got nowhere else to go, and I will fry for this but… as he said when arrested, “I hate everybody's guts, and everybody hates mine.” So, did he care that an actress, film director and movie star came to meet him? It sounds like no, no he did not.

Cook-hard-luck-211x300Ida Lupino wasn’t so keen on Billy either. Set on making a movie inspired by Cook’s horror (she interviewed two of his victims as well) and needing his approval, she entered the prison and who knows how she thought it would go down. People have found themselves sympathetic towards murderers (think of Perry Smith via Truman Capote) or charmed (think of Charles Starkweather), but Lupino expressed her feelings with the bluntness of Billy’s tattoo – she was scared and she wanted to get the hell out of there. As detailed in Mary Ann Anderson's “The Making of The Hitch-Hiker,” Lupino said:

“I was allowed to see Billy Cook briefly for safety issues. I found San Quentin to be cold, dark, and a very scary place inside. In fact, I was told by Collie (Collier Young) not to go; it was not safe. I needed a release from Billy Cook to do our film about him. My company, Filmakers, paid $3,000.00 to his attorney for exclusive rights to his story. I found Billy to be cold and aloof. I was afraid of him. Billy Cook had ‘Hard Luck’ tattooed on the fingers of his left hand and a deformed right eyelid that would never close completely. I could not wait to get the hell out of San Quentin.”

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The resulting film became The Hitch-Hiker (Lupino’s fifth as a director, she was the second woman admitted in the DGA, and long considered the first woman to direct an American film noir), with a script by Robert L. Joseph, Lupino and Collier Young (from a story by Daniel Mainwaring, who was blacklisted and did not receive screen credit). The script was modified so to be less directly about Cook (both the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Motion Picture Association forbade movies that were too close to the real crime, actual names and biography not to be included) but many details show up in the movie. The hunters become two guys on a fishing trip (played by Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) and Cook, who becomes the taller, older and more mysterious Emmett Myers (played by William Talman), has that deformed eye. One eye does not shut close – a terrifying abnormality that increases the men’s unease as Myers is always watching them, seemingly, even in sleep.    

The great Lupino, both unflinching and sensitive in her direction, does not give Billy’s stand-in, Emmett, the “Hard Luck” story of the kid’s inspiration. Unlike some film noir, she offers no melodrama or glamour to Talman’s psycho – he’s terrifying in facial features, affect, stature and impenetrable sociopathy. There’s nothing charming about this guy, there are no moments of warmth or even a lazy break on his part towards his captors. He’s pure sadist – almost at times, a lonely, bored sadist, burned out on life – as if he likes tormenting these men because he also needs their company.

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O’Brien and Lovejoy’s hostages remain deathly afraid of this man, angry at him and, in moments, frustrated with each other while stuck in this claustrophobic nightmare. As they’re driving through the Baja desert towards Santa Rosalia, taking awful “breaks” with the lunatic, the two men express moments of fear and sadness in affecting bursts of raw emotion – Lovejoy’s embrace of a young girl at a rest-stop (“Vaya usted con dios,” he says to her, which Talman makes him translate: “Go, you are with God little one.”) or O’Brien yelling, indeed, howling, to a plane for help, which results in nothing. It’s brutal and beautiful as (with the help of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca) Lupino focuses on faces and location – close-ups of these differently featured men juxtaposed with the vastness of the desert – the bright sunlight feeling as oppressive, maybe more oppressive, than the blackest shots of night. She also never translates the Spanish spoken in the movie, a bold and modern move, creating even more unknowability and tension for the viewer. What is going to happen? You may know the real-life case, but there are moments you’re not sure both men will make it out alive.

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is an upsetting movie. Yes, it’s suspenseful and, as some might say, it’s the oft-used “taut,” but it’s a rough experience that offers no sympathetic backstory for the killer, nor easy resolutions for the victim’s future. You assume that they go home after their ordeal, while the killer (who murdered three early in the film before picking up his captors, as opposed to the real-life six of Billy Cook – production code issues) goes to the electric chair.

But whatever trauma that haunts those two men lingers in our minds after the picture ends, to Lupino and the actor’s immense credit. We don’t know how to feel. Relief? Not exactly. These men will never be the same. They will carry this incident with them. It's as if the victims are, in some ways, marked with Billy Cook’s own ink –  HARD LUCK.


Time Waits for No One: Rumble Fish

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Hours are like diamonds, don't let them waste

Time waits for no one; no favors has he

Time waits for no one, and he won't wait for me – The Rolling Stones

Time. Once you hit the teen mark in life – what a beautiful horrible time that is. Dreamy and crazy and banal and violent – in action or in mind – melodramatic and real and hormonally addled. In the case of Rusty James who is sometimes not the smartest (but not dumb), and oftentimes intensely poetic – we see it in movement, in words, in the way he looks at his surroundings: his drunken dad’s apartment, his girlfriend’s intelligent beautiful face and his older brother’s odd, sad, sleepwalking swagger. And then listening to that older brother even if he doesn't understand half of what he says. And there’s those brightly colored rumble fish in the pet store… 

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Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish presents and ponders these dreamlike feelings of teenhood as an expressionistic mood piece – a reverie that feels of this world and out of this world but so rooted in an emotional truth that it, at times, feels Shakespearean. It’s a beauty of black and white cinematography (by Stephen H. Burum) as if Orson Welles took over both Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and Don Siegel’s Crime in the Streets but infused them with F.W. Murnau and, of course, Coppola. Deep focus, Dutch angles, bold, abstract camera moves, dark wet streets, a rumble so balletic that it was indeed choreographed by San Francisco Ballet director, Michael Smuin – Rumble Fish is a stylistic wonder, but rich with feeling that’s embedded right in that style.  According to Burum (from American Cinematographer):

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"For reference points, the first picture that Francis wanted us to look at was the Anatole Litvak film, Decision Before Dawn… Decision was a picture about spies in postwar Europe and it was actually shot on location in about 1946. What he wanted Dean Tavolouris to see was its images of ruined cities. That was where all the smoke and obscurity in Rumble Fish came from. He wanted to give the feeling that these kids were operating in a wasteland. It was partial destruction with a leanness in the way things looked. In all, it reflects the mental state of the characters and the chaos in their world. Another picture that we looked at was Johnny Belinda that Ted McCord [ASC] shot. We did look at some of the German Expressionist films such as The Last Laugh by F.W. Murnau. Francis showed it to the actors because he wanted more body attitude out of the kids. Emil Jannings’ posture in The Last Laugh becomes more and more forlorn as he is beaten down by life. So Francis was trying to get across to them, especially to Matt Dillon, how important body language was. Even in silent acting, you could project that kind of feeling so strongly. We looked at Viva Zapata and Orson Welles’ Macbeth.”

But, for sure, this is a Coppola film through and through – a masterpiece – there has been no other teen film like Rumble Fish (released in 1983) – before or since. Coppola was so ahead of his time here, so experimental and unafraid, that the film remains timeless (as does the brilliant, evocative percussive-based score by Stewart Copeland).

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And, so, for years, the picture was misunderstood (though it had its defenders – like Roger Ebert – and it’s respected now, with an impressive Criterion edition). But some baffled critics seem to adamantly not understand – as if they resented the filmmaker for making an art film out of a young adult S.E. Hinton novel ("an art film for teenagers," Coppola said). The great S.E. Hinton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Coppola and who (of course) also wrote the novel, The Outsiders, which was Coppola’s other Tulsa teen film made before Rumble Fish – both released the same year. What a year, Coppola so suffused with beautiful rebel youth. He dedicated Rumble Fish to his older brother, August. This was personal for him.

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Hinton’s Rusty James was only 14 in her novel, his older brother, Motorcycle Boy was 17. Here, Rusty James (Matt Dillon) is in his later teens, and his brother, Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) is 21. That’s old to a teenager. But Motorcycle Boy was an old 17 in Hinton’s novel and he’s an even older 21 in Coppola’s movie – a haunted young man whose hearing comes and goes, who is colorblind, and who has seen and felt more than he says, speaking quietly, and often with literary references that only their book smart but dipsomaniacal father (Dennis Hopper) understands. Rusty James beseeches them to “talk normal” because he feels left out. He wants to be like his brother. He wants to belong, especially after his mother has split and moved to California. But he’s not like his older brother. And probably not like his mother either. As his old man says:

“No, your mother... is not crazy. And neither, contrary to popular belief, is your brother crazy. He's merely miscast in a play. He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river... With the ability to be able to do anything that he wants to do and... findin' nothin' that he wants to do. I mean nothing.”

Wrong side of the river – we first think – wrong side of the tracks – but river feels so much more mythological, so much more symbolic than that – it’s movement, it’s time – and Motorcycle Boy wants to flow. As Rusty James says in Hinton’s novel, “I couldn’t picture the Motorcycle Boy in California, by the ocean. He liked rivers, not oceans.” At the magazine stand in the movie, Rusty James compares Motorcycle Boy to the Pied Piper, that the guys in the town would have followed him anywhere, “Yeah, they’d all follow me to the river, huh?” Motorcycle Boy says, “And jump in?”

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Motorcycle Boy has been gone a few months – in California, he says – but returns when Rusty James rumbles with Biff Wilcox – he returns quite dramatically. Recovering from a fight wound, the brothers hang out, while Rusty James' friend Steve (Vincent Spano) remarks on the older brother’s appearance – as if he can’t hear him: “He looks so old I forget he’s just 21.” Rusty replies, “Yeah, that’s pretty old.”

That is pretty old to a teenager – and Rourke’s Motorcycle Boy does look and seem appropriately older – he’s cool, maybe crazy to others, but also dignified, “Royalty in exile.” It’s as if he’s in on some secret only he understands, and it feels like… the end. You feel a pall of death hanging over him. And you feel it for young Rusty James too – unless he escapes. Will he? Rusty James says: “Man, I feel like I’m wasting my life waiting for something. Waiting for what? I wish I had a reason to leave, man.”

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Rusty James has time ticking all around him – literally conveyed by the ticking score, the clocks spied in different scenes, and a broken old clock hitched up to a truck in town – Rusty James and Motorcycle Boy lean against it as Patterson the Cop (William Smith), with his ominous mustache and sunglasses (he’s the personification of both The Man and institutionalized soul-crushing), picks at Motorcycle Boy, again, as if he’s not standing right there. Rusty James asks him why he hates him so much. “I hate him so much, because you kids think he's something he's not. He's no hero.” Rusty quite reasonably counters with: “Like you are! You're a hero, right?”

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Patterson the Cop is not a hero. He’s more like the Grim Reaper – death is at their door – and he’ll sure as hell be a part of it somehow. Rusty James’ death? His brother’s death? The death of adolescence? The Grim Reaper lays in wait. In a spectacular near-death sequence, Rusty James goes out of body and floats over the town, spying how people would feel if he were dead. Did he mean anything? You wonder if his brother would wonder that. Probably not. He doesn’t seem to care anymore, not what people think, and that makes him “dangerous,” “crazy,” to soul-crushers – he’s in his own world. And it’s Motorcycle Boy who really seems like he’s floating, out of body, near death, throughout the entire movie.

If there’s a Grim Reaper, there’s also a Guardian Angel (as the actor himself, Laurence Fishburne, described himself), and the movie opens with Fishburne’s Midget – dressed in white jacket and white hat –walking into the diner/billiard hall to warn Rusty James: “Biff Wilcox is looking for you … Says he’s gonna kill you.” Death is already waiting. Time is key – it means something to the director. As Coppola described (in “The Making of Rumble Fish”) right after Midget warns Rusty James: “And from that moment until the end, time is running out on this character…”

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And it is. Time is tension in Rumble Fish. The boy’s father may show how long you can hold on as a booze-hound as if old age is forever, but youth? Youth is short, even if your summers feel long. Friends and girlfriends, and the sad junkie Cassandra, and Benny from the diner (actors Nicolas Cage, Chris Penn, Diane Lane, Diana Scarwid and Tom Waits– all fantastic here) are there and will likely come and go. But moments mean something – like when Motorcycle Boy rides Rusty James on his bike at night – a loving, gorgeous sequence of brothers just being – two young men feeling like they are anywhere else but there. For some minutes.

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Motorcycle Boy may have been about the river, but, by the end, Rusty James makes it to the ocean. And it’s beautiful to see that he’s gone that far – and on his brother’s motorcycle. The ocean feels like either the end of the line or the beginning of the story – where the river meets the sea – and that’s either life or death for Rusty James. We hope life.

My piece originally published in Ed Brubaker's Criminal


Arrow Release of True Romance

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Happy to be a part of Arrow's new 4K restorations of both the Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut from the original camera negatives of Tony Scott's True Romance. I wrote one of the accompanying essays in this packed special edition. Loads of special features -- read more about them here. Release date July 19.

Here's the beginning of my essay (extended from a piece I wrote for The New Beverly)

There’s a scene early in Tony Scott’s True Romance in which Patricia Arquette’s Alabama is so full of love and feeling and guilt, that I’m always taken aback by emotion when I see it. She’s just so moving, so sure to prove her ability to “come clean” that you want to reassure her that it’s all going to be OK. And when you first see the movie, you’re worried for her. Will it be OK? It should be, but will it?

She has to clear up something to her date – a date who will soon be her husband. She tells him that she was actually hired for his birthday— that night. She’s upset, she cries, she’s not a “whore,” she’s a “call girl,” she says. “There’s a difference!” she exclaims. 

How will he (Christian Slater’s Clarence) react? Is he going to be angry with her? Upon first viewing, you know these two will be together – this is a movie called True Romance – but what is he going to do first? When he hears this? Do we have to see that scene? One with anger?

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It’s a scene where a macho ego might lash out at a woman who’s, to him, just pretended attraction, romance, and compatibility (though, to her delight and fear, she’s 
not pretending, she realizes). It’s also the kind of scene many critics take for granted because it occurs in what would be termed a pulpy action movie – though it’s much more than that – it’s a brilliant pulpy action movie/love story full of invention and insanity and bright bloody artistry; and also, an influential one, notable for the excellence of Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay (his first screenplay).

And though True Romance is a lot more than action and has been praised, and Arquette did indeed receive kudos by many; still, her skill of showing such complex feeling in the picture is, perhaps, not recognized enough. Not in the way a big “important” Oscar-type speech would be praised. 

Well, Alabama has a big, important speech because she’s a woman in a dangerous, looked-down-upon profession. She also wants Clarence to know she’s not a habitual liar or “damaged goods” or a bad person after revealing that their dream date was actually paid for by his boss. And on top of that, she’s now overwhelmed with a passionate purity of feeling – love. And that’s terrifying. Falling in love is scary. So – how will he react? Refreshingly and wonderfully, he’s not mad:

Alabama: I gotta tell you something else. When you said last night – was one of the best times you ever had – did you mean physically?

Clarence: Well, yeah. Yeah, but I’m talking about the whole night. I mean, I never had as much fun with a girl as I had with you in my whole life. It’s true. You like Elvis. You like Janis. You like kung fu movies. You like The Partridge Family. Star Trek…

Alabama: Actually, I don’t like The Partridge Family. That was part of the act. Clarence, and I feel really goofy saying this after only knowing you one night and me being a call girl and all, but… I think I love you.

Ah, but she is quoting The Partridge Family’s greatest song, perhaps without even knowing it. David Cassidy sings: “I think I love you! So what am I so afraid of? I'm afraid that I'm not sure of. A love there is no cure for...”

Read my entire piece on the Arrow release of True Romance.


John Frankenheimer’s The Train

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Christine: Men are such fools. Men want to be heroes and their widows mourn.

Labiche: Perhaps men are fools. There were over a hundred involved in stopping that train. Switchmen, brakemen, yard gangs, stationmasters. God knows how many will be shot, like Jacques. You know what’s on that train? Paintings. That’s right, paintings. Art. The national heritage. The pride of France. Crazy, isn’t it?

The hero is not the first character we see and experience in John Frankenheimer’s The Train. We do not take in Burt Lancaster’s Resistance leader and SNCF railway superintendent, Paul Labiche, admiring famous works of art, those things he will, in brilliantly staged action sequences, risk his life to save from another’s possession and dispersion. Rather, we see Paul Scofield’s Nazi, Colonel Franz von Waldheim gazing, one might interpret, longingly, at the masterpieces. And we watch this all very quietly. It’s nearing the liberation of Paris – early August, 1944 – the 1,511th day of Occupation – and as the movie starts, a car drives up to Paris’s Jeu de Paume Museum with armed Nazis outside. From that driven car arrives von Waldheim, who then walks into the empty museum, removes his hat and coat and places them on the coat rack, as if he does this all the time. He surely does. This appears to be a sanctuary. You don’t see him smile, you don’t see much of his face right away, but by his slow, uniformed, leather, high-booted walk (there’s no score in this scene, just the sound of his boot heels and rubbing leather), you get the sense, immediately, that he has respect for this art based on his almost careful movements. He strides into a hallway, turns on a light, and gazes at the work, the camera finally fixing on his face in close-up as he admires or questions (one is not sure yet) a painting. Is he moved? His eyes are curious – for a second he looks near rapture, or maybe even sad, but then his eyes appear cagy, as if not to allow this emotion. We don’t feel for him, we feel wary and careful, a bit like he does, but for different reasons. We don’t want him to do something terrible in this vulnerable space. It’s a brief, rather brilliant moment and one in which another actor might reveal an overt poignancy or a sighing sort of worship. Not Scofield – he’s admiring and he’s hiding and he’s scheming and then he’s something else that’s too mysterious to define. He backs away from the work, slowly, and we start to understand that there’s reverence there, maybe even a certain type of fear mixed with devious power and selfishness.

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The place is half dark with a light gleaming like a spotlight or, even more, like a divine beam on the masterwork – the place looks and feels like a black and white cathedral, and the stillness is eerily beautiful, but also nerve-racking. It’s just too quiet. As he continues walking backward, another light switches on and he turns, a bit startled. The film cuts to museum curator Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon) behind him, now walking towards his turned body. They know each other. They gaze at a Gaugin and she asks, “It was in the Clouvet Collection, wasn’t it?” He answers, “It was.” And then he asks, “Do you like it?” (As Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer state in “A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film,” it’s “striking” the film doesn’t underscore that the art in the Jeu de Paume was looted from Jewish collections and that this scene naming the Clouvet Collection “is as far as The Train goes towards explicitly acknowledging the deportation and dispossession of France’s Jews.”) To her “liking” the collection, she answers rhetorically, “Need you ask?” The conversation continues:

Von Waldheim: As a loyal officer of the Third Reich, I should detest it. I’ve often wondered at the curious conceit that would attempt to determine tastes and ideas by decree.

Villard: Many times over the past four years I have wanted to thank you. For not being what you’d expected? For saving all this. Protecting it … I could have been sent away. Someone else brought in to be in charge of the museum. Perhaps I should thank you. I was foolish. I knew of books being burned. Other things. I was terrified that these would be lost.

Von Waldheim: A book is worth a few francs. We Germans can afford to destroy those. We all may not appreciate artistic merit, but cash value is another matter.

Villard: You won’t convince me that you’re cynical. I know what these paintings mean to you.

Von Waldheim: You are a perceptive woman.

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She is perceptive. More than she knows and beyond what she knows (what do they really mean to him? And in what way?), because after this exchange, the art-loving, venal sophisticate declares the paintings to be seized and loaded on the train. He will take them, convince his superior of their value (despite their imagery as “degenerate”), and to Villard’s horror, attempt to transport the masterworks (including paintings by Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso, Braques, Degas, Matisse and many more) to Germany. Thus, begins a picture that gorgeously synthesizes precision, ingenious camerawork, richly toned beautiful black and white deep-focus cinematography, exciting, unique action (from large scale explosions to smaller, detailed moments), remarkable location shooting, history, performance, personality and art – the art within the film and the art of the filmmaking itself. And of course, those chugging, steaming, beautiful iron beasts – those trains – or, the train. They are works of art in and of themselves.

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The question of saving art while risking too many lives faces off two incredibly willful men who enter this battle for very different reasons. We learn this when we finally meet our hero, or rather, our reluctant hero turned (as Brendan Gill said in The New Yorker) “contemporary Sisyphus,” Lancaster’s Labiche. Unlike von Waldheim, Labiche does not care about art and we presume he knows nothing about it (he values life more), so when Villard and Senior Resistance Leader Spinet (Paul Bonifas) press him for help, he’s not willing. He states, quite reasonably: “This morning we had four men left in this group. Now we are three. One, two, three… We started with 18. Like your paintings, mademoiselle, we couldn’t replace them. For certain things, we take the risk. But I won’t waste lives on paintings.”

His way of thinking changes when his father figure, the petulant, though lovable, older engineer ‘Papa’ Boule (Michel Simon) is killed – and with such casual disregard. In a masterful set of shots (there are so many in this picture), Frankenheimer (and cinematographers Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz) show Boule carted away after he’s caught sabotaging the train with coins – slipping off the oil caps to reveal the franc pieces, tough-as-nails and maybe even crazy Boule states: “Four francs are four francs.” Boule has seen it all and will not kiss Nazi ass – he won’t even plead for mercy – but in a sublime close-up, he looks at Labiche with wearisome, sad eyes. He knows what’s coming. Labiche then pleads for mercy: “Colonel! He slowed up your train for a few hours but he saved it. He took it through the bombs at the risk of his own life. He’s an old man. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. I’ll get your train through for you. He’s just a foolish old man.” Papa Boule insists that the train is his (it’s a lovely moment, staking claim while insulting Labiche, whom he taught everything, which seems a code for I love you, goodbye, but, also, remember who I am…) and then spits at the Nazis. He is led away. The shot is now Labiche and von Wadlheim facing each other in symmetrical profiles, and Labiche further pleads for Boule’s life. As he begs, Boule is, in our vision and in the peripheral vision of Labiche, gunned down – dead.

It’s heartbreaking and so quick that Lancaster turns to look in the shot – there’s not cut or break here. Papa Boule is gone. When the camera does show Lancaster’s expression in close-up, it registers the loss and the malevolence of the act – his sooted-up face and sorrowful eyes looking on as the scene dissolves to fire – raging. It’s fascinating to learn that this scene was thought up so quickly. Simon had to wrap for another project so Frankenheimer had his character killed. It’s sad to see him go, but so effective because we love Papa Boule – it’s Michel Simon for heaven’s sake. And then, thinking of the real life and history of brilliant, singular Simon, who lived his own way, and with whatever social class or circle he liked; and who worked with, among so many greats, from Jean Vigo to Jean Renoir, just that face and lumbering body is a monument. When Papa Boule remarks earlier about Renoir (as in painter Pierre-Auguste and Jean Renoir’s father) whom he has little interest in, he says mischievously but rather beautifully, “I used to know a girl who modeled for Renoir. She smelled of paint.” Simon, the man, very well probably had known such a girl.

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We’re past 45 minutes in the picture when Labiche really really finally decides to join up with his resistance compatriots – thought plenty of action has already occurred, including an entire train yard being blown up. No miniatures used, Frankenheimer was given permission to destroy the actual rail yard, which was set for demolition, and the resulting fantasia is a mesmerizing, almost Wagnerian thing of beauty. But when Labiche unleashes his unrelenting drive – when he engages in that Sisyphean struggle – to stop that train and with it, the determination of von Waldheim, the spectacle becomes a reflection of the dueling wills of Lancaster and Scofield’s characters: Lancaster outsmarting the Nazi navigators aboard the train by changing the names of the towns, the thrilling confrontation of machines – an airplane and a train (a scene that almost killed Frankenheimer), Scofield insisting on righting a full derailment with no resources or time left, a frontal collision between steam engines, and then the numerous times 51-year-old Lancaster sprints, jumps, dives, tumbles down hills, and outruns machine gun fire with acrobatic grace. It’s all so inventively beautiful, a thrill to watch, but artful at every turn, at times I was thinking of O. Winston Link’s large-format photographs of trains or of Rene Clement’s La Bataille du Rail or of Buster Keaton’s The General. But The Train, in style, substance and action, is entirely a John Frankenheimer movie, and one that offers no easy answers as it moves towards its uneasy conclusion.

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Frankenheimer’s picture (his fourth of five with Lancaster –  including The Young Savages and The Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in MayThe Gypsy Moths) was, remarkably, an assignment he took over after the original director Arthur Penn was let go due to differences with star and producer, Lancaster. It neither feels like a movie Frankenheimer took over nor a work for hire – it’s so intricately executed, so demanding an exercise, and at such a scale, that even with all the preparation and time in the world, an almost military precision would be needed to deliver. Frankenheimer and Lancaster worked together with such synchronicity, the actor’s movement, athleticism and physical presence, seamlessly blends with the director’s mobile camera – Frankenheimer’s tracking shots, his trademark wide angled compositions, his perfectly timed and dangerous action choreography in which Lancaster does all of his own stunts is an inspired union. It’s as if director and star are doing their own cinematic trapeze act – no nets. So flawless was their timing that without breaking pace, when Lancaster injured his knee (at of all places, a golf course during his leisure time) and worried that it would ruin the rest of the shoot, Frankenhimer proposed to feature a scene in which Labiche is shot in the leg, and proceeded to utilize his very real limp for the duration of the film. It’s a wonderfully affecting solution as watching Labiche, tired and haggard and literally limping to the finish line is as impressively strong as it is poignant and human.

Labiche endures and survives so much (indeed, he has little time to explore a connection with Jeanne Moreau’s sad, brave Christine) and the film’s final moments only allow him a slight reprieve. He’s worn out and sick of it all and, at times, it’s curious why he’s even still at it. Surely, it’s not the art. It’s life – his life to live, his country’s, and his need to prove the odds wrong, and yet, that’s not quite all of it. We don’t how to feel at the end of The Train – it does not end with a tidy, satisfactory conclusion – even when Labiche shoots von Waldheim dead. Frankenheimer chooses not to make the moment a cheering one, like many other pictures, but one of existential futility. In fact, the director believed von Walheim’s final moment was an act of suicide. The confrontation was created more on the spot by Lancaster and Frankenhimer as one version of the script (written by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis with the uncredited Walter Bernstein, Howard Dimsdale and Nedrick Young and very loosely based on “Le front de l’art” by Rose Valland) had a different, less powerful ending. According to Frankenheimer, it was Lancaster who suggested, “Why don’t we have him talk himself to death?”

He does. Facing off with Labiche, von Waldheim, the man who soaked in the paintings at the Jeu de Paume, fell in love with them, likely not just for monetary reasons but for his own, perhaps, selfish obsession with beauty now soaks in machine gun-wielding Labiche. He says:

“Here’s your prize, Labiche. Some of the greatest paintings in the world. Does it please you, Labiche? Do you feel a sense of excitement in just being near them? A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape. You won by sheer luck. You stopped me without knowing what you were doing, or why. You are nothing, Labiche. A lump of flesh. The paintings are mine. They always will be. Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it. They will always belong to me or to a man like me. Now, this minute, you couldn’t tell me why you did what you did.”

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Labiche probably can’t entirely answer why. But that does not mean this malignant man is right in his obsessive, arrogant and selfish death speech, or that Labiche is a lump of flesh – he most certainly is not, who cares if he knows little of art. Labiche shoots him. That’s an answer. As Labiche leaves the scene of destruction – the sound and images working like a metronome of the steam punctuating the images of dead men and abandoned art – we wonder what he wonders or what he will wonder. He is alive. And, not knowing all the answers, he limps on down the road.

Originally published at the New Beverly


Over the Edge

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"Hello there ladies and gentlemen!"

Excited to be a part of this Arrow release -- it's long been one of my favorites -- Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge -- with an Illustrated collector's booklet featuring a new essay I wrote -- Also inside is writing by Henry Blyth, and the original San Francisco Examiner article that inspired the film. There are so many great extras on this one -- check them all out here

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Nightmare Alley Criterion Edition

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"The fool who walks in motley..."

I was thrilled to be a part of this edition.

Edmund Goulding's Nightmare Alley starring Tyrone Power in one of his best performances (his very best?) came out this week on Criterion in a beautiful edition. Special features include an interview with Imogen Sara Smith, an interview w/ performer and historian Todd Robbins, a 1971 interview with Henry King and my essay on the movie. I dig into the backstory, the filmmakers and cast and the author of the original novel, the fascinating William Lindsay Gresham. Watch the movie and read the novel. 

Read my piece here.

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Wild Boys of the Road

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Eddie: [to judge] I knew all that stuff about you helping us was baloney. I'll tell you why we can't go home—because our folks are poor. They can't get jobs and there isn't enough to eat. What good will it do you to send us home to starve? You say you've got to send us to jail to keep us off the streets. Well, that's a lie. You're sending us to jail because you don't want to see us. You want to forget us. But you can't do it because I'm not the only one. There's thousands just like me, and there's more hitting the road every day.

Tommy: You read in the papers about giving people help. The banks get it. The soldiers get it. The breweries get it. And they're always yelling about giving it to the farmers. What about us? We're kids!

These are kids. In William Wellman’s depression-era Wild Boys of the Road – these young people jumping trains, fighting off railway men, scraping and scrapping to survive – are, really, just kids. Not wizened hoboes or street-smart tough guys – kids. In gorgeously-gritty, location-shot scenes with an unflinching documentary feel, they hop trains, quick and nimble, for they are full of life and vigor, but their vulnerability against those hulking steam engines is ever noticeable – they always appear like they could be squashed like bugs – by the merciless machines and, certainly, by society. And, indeed, one of the kids is run over – his leg will be amputated.

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Even as positive and as tough as some of them try to remain, you feel an air of doom for these likable young people, you see their innocence and belief in something brighter on the precipice of fading away. (One of the girls, in a terrifying scene, is raped by a railroad brakeman played by Ward Bond). You see that, in a few years, maybe even a few months, they’re going to become hardened, burned out or turning to full-time lives of crime, mostly out of necessity. And who could blame them? They could become another Tom Powers a la Wellman’s The Public Enemy (in which Wild Boys Frankie Darro played Powers’ childhood buddy) or just a regular down-an-outer petty thief – nothing Cagney-charisma about it – one of those types who may even eventually thieve from the more gullible, from those younger than them – stealing from who they once were. Oh, no. You sure hope they don’t become like that. You sure hope they don’t become mean and cold-hearted.

Wellman’s protagonists – here, chiefly, Darro as Eddie Smith, Edwin Phillips as Tommy Gordon and Dorothy Coonan (later Dorothy Coonan Wellman) as Sally (who dresses like a boy) – are sweet and complex and full of love for each other, and their friendship is heartbreakingly touching. So, when bad things happen to these kids, like Tommy losing his leg – you despair for them. Tommy says, before his leg is amputated, all tough and sad to Eddie: “Shucks, what do I care about an old leg? Just think, from now on, when I get a pair of new shoes, I'll only have to break in one of them.” That’s both trying to harden yourself when you’re terrified and trying to remain optimistic at the same time. It’s an understandable way to live given these kids’ circumstances, but they should be what they are at that moment – kids.

And then there’s the fact that Eddie and Tommy set out on the road because their parents couldn’t find work – the two young teens are first presented as kids going to dances and leading pretty regular lives, albeit with poverty creeping in – until their parents are crushed by the depression. They care about their parents and try what they can to help before embarking on the road (Eddie sells his beloved jalopy to help his dad and pretends he doesn’t care about it – he does care) and as they go through fear and some fun on the road, but mostly a lot of hell, they bond and care even more about each other, and you really, truly care about them. As Wellman clearly did too. This was, according to Wellman’s son, among his favorite films. In William Wellman, Jr.’s biography of his father, “Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel,” he that the movie reminded his father “of his own troubled youth.” And he worked hard on the picture  – reportedly went over budget to maintain his on-location, documentary-style vision. It’s a beautifully shot picture (by cinematographer Arthur L. Todd) and, in moments, bracingly real, scary, particularly as it’s addressing direct social issues of the day.

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Tough, grittily realistic and uncompromising (until the end –the ending was changed and softened and feels tacked on) Wild Boys of the Road still astonishes the viewer all these decades later. It’s also exciting, incredibly tender and moving, thanks largely to Darro’s soulful performance and Wellman’s two-fisted sensitivity. Wild Boys was released the same year as Wellman’s other masterful, harrowing pre-coder, Heroes for Sale (1933 was one of those incredibly prolific pre-code years for Wellman, he released six pictures – he also shot seventeen uncredited scenes of the picture, Female) and it takes on the concerns he cared about (also visited in his 1928 picture, Beggars of Life). And taking on the concerns of kids. Again, these are kids, and Frankie Darro (who grew up in the circus with his parents – and who stood five feet three inches tall – he was around 15 here), looks, at times, even younger than he was. In stature. His face, however, is all tough and sensitive – a poignant presence, he’s already got a lot of wisdom in his eyes. But, again, he’s a kid growing up too fast.

And, so, it seems the idea that kids were the protagonists of this depression-era picture was upsetting (which is why this picture is so damn powerful) and, to some keeping tabs on the filmmaking, too upsetting. Wellman was asked to shoot an alternate happy ending. As said, it feels strange and forced, so much so, that the happiness the kids feel at the end, doesn’t seem like it’s going to last. That this was just one of those freak breaks that never happens in life and maybe it won’t even happen – for real. As detailed in William Wellman, Jr.’s biography about his father, this was not what Wellman wanted. The intended ending (after the kids are busted – for something they’re not even guilty of – Eddie was duped into a bad situation) went like this:

“The judge reads the sentencing to the youngsters: ‘Sally Clark. House of Corrections. One year, ten months. Thomas Gordon. County Farm. Eligible for probation in one year. Edward, the law compels me to send you to the State Reformatory. You will be confined there until you reach your twenty-first birthday. I’m sorry to do this—but the law leaves me no other alternative.” The three kids are ushered by an attendant from the courtroom to a waiting police vehicle. As they drive away, the teenagers stare out the window at a world they won’t be seeing for a long time. From an upper window of the court building, the judge watches their departure on the road to incarceration.”

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The ending Jack Warner insisted (as I read in Wellman, Jr.’s book) and what we see in the film now, is all three kids getting a break by a kindly judge (I’ve seen him compared to Roosevelt) who takes pity on them. See, the system isn’t so bad… Well, it’s such a weird ending that it makes Eddie’s little moment of joy upon leaving the courthouse all the more powerful because, once again, we realize that this picture is about the deep bonds of friendship (much like Wellman’s Wings and the superb Other Men’s Women – among many other pictures). Darro – a terrific acrobat (there’s another scene in which he skillfully, and thrillingly jumps into a garbage can to hide) does a series of flips, including backflips and spins on his head. He’s expressing how happy he is that he got a break. And it’s beautifully moving. But then he notices Tommy eyeing him with envy, and Eddie’s eyes fill with empathy – Tommy, with one leg, will never be able to leap and jump and flip like a young man again, his future is even more uncertain than Eddies – and you see how much Eddie, who showed the same eyes for his poor father, feels for his best friend.

No matter what that judge said that’s supposed to make us feel some hope, the world is still an uncertain place for these kids. But their hope in each other – even if the world might and probably will crush them – is enough to make one weep.

As Tommy exclaims, “What about us? We're kids!”


The Rebel Rousers & Psych-Out

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“So in ’67, we do this little motorcycle movie, Cameron Mitchell, the group of six, plus Miss Diane. We’ve got a little swagger under our belts. We’ve got ‘The Wild Angels’, which did okay. Jack has already done almost a decade of independent movies on his own, plus working for Roger. I’d been around almost a decade now. I’m a Kazanite, and so is Cameron Mitchell. We’re doing Roger without Roger. Marty Cohen doesn’t have a clue. There are some paying problems on this movie, but I’m standing by because my manager is producing it along with his friend Rex Carlton, who was dubious at best. At the end of the first ten days of shooting, they don’t have money for my actors. I’m going to get my money because my manager is the producer and director. That’s not right.” – Bruce Dern on “The Rebel Rousers”

“It’s just one big plastic hassle.” – Dean Stockwell as Dave in “Psych-Out”

It’s 1967 and everyone looks a little exhausted. Fascinatingly so. I’m talking about the actors in Martin B. Cohen’s The Rebel Rousers and Richard Rush’s Psych-Out, both shot in ’67 – two very different movies, but two that have a similar vibe of … oh, we have done and seen so much already. We’ve been out of the house a long time, kids. But they are all creative – they’re all searching. They are all game – some are even quite powerful, and they seem real in spite of some hokey situations. No one is on auto-pilot. They’re all in their own world, but also, in it together, acting out something that could very well be happening internally, something a little darker, a little more vulnerable, something that’s responding to the 1960s nearing its end, something responding to their careers in a strange spot, to time marching on and time waiting for no one. This seems like a lot to say – especially for a picture that seems as inconsequential as The Rebel Rousers (Psych-Out has more going for it) – but there’s something in both pictures that reverberates beyond the movies themselves. In both, everything feels a bit off. And it’s not off in the way Rebel Rousers biker Jack Nicholson’s striped pants look (which are pretty great, really) or how Psych-Out hippie Jack Nicholson’s ponytail seems pinned on (also pretty great, if odd-looking), and it’s not the loud motorcycles and it’s not the groovy acid. It’s something else.

And, so, the actors’ tiredness feels appropriate, even, at times, moving. A moving bummer. But a kind of bummer that makes both movies infinitely more interesting. Is that the point? Do these actors feel all of this? Something darker going on? As pondered in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice: “Was it possible, that at every gathering – concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back east, wherever – those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear? ‘Gee,’ he said to himself out loud, ‘I dunno…’” I dunno. I dunno if these guys know either.

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The Rebel Rousers (or Rebel Rousers) is a biker movie not directed by Roger Corman (The Wild Angels) or Richard Rush (The Savage Seven, Hells Angels on Wheels) but by Bruce Dern’s manager, Martin B. Cohen, his only picture as a director. It doesn’t have the energy of the aforementioned movies; Cohen’s craftsmanship is not at that level. I’m not sure if he knew what he was doing, though he had the benefit of working with cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (who would also shoot Richard Rush’s Psych-Out), and of course, his excellent cast and, chiefly, Dern whose voice and movements and vocal inflections are transfixing. He can alternate from yelling gleefully to confused to sad to unsure to cocky to absolutely lost – he makes every moment count. But it’s intriguing to watch all of the film’s actors – Dern, Cameron Mitchell, Diane Ladd, Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton – they take their roles seriously, volley off of each other, and clearly, at times, improvise (you wonder what percentage of the movie is improvisation – how much script was actually written). As interesting as it is (to me, anyway, as a time capsule of these actors’ careers, as well as some mysterious kind of melancholy), it’s a slow-moving picture for those expecting crazier biker antics. And it contains some flat-footed offensive moments with the Mexican characters living in the town. It does feature a Mexican family (led by Robert Dix – son of famed actor Richard Dix) who eventually help Paul (he is seen frantically searching for help all over town without any success) and who face off against the bikers with pitchforks –  but that doesn’t amount to much in terms of the story. Nicholson and Dern fight in a darkly lit scene (so dark I was wondering who was fighting – the striped pants helped) and Dern will find himself lost and a bit sad on the beach in a nice closing shot.

Here, the biker gang (including Earl Finn, Lou Procopio, Phil Carey and Neil Nephew) go about their wanna-be Wild One business, taking over a town (somewhat) and things get rowdy in a restaurant – they’re dancing on tables, women are taking off their shirts and shimmying in their bras, a guy plays the bongos, and they’re either scaring people or sort of charming them (there’s a moment where bad boy bikers Dern and Nicholson talk to an elderly woman who really looks like she was eating in that joint, I can’t believe she’s an actress and her little moment is kind of great –  “She’s the woman of the year, man!” says Dern as he lifts up her arm triumphantly – she seems only mildly amused and certainly not shocked by them). But their rebellion is lackluster, tired. How many times have they pulled this crap? Aren’t they getting bored with themselves?

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It seems like this is the point. They’re bored. These guys have nothing better to do than to ride in circles on the beach. The free-wheeling 60s spirit and outlaw attitude just seem like an effort here, even as being a biker is a ride-or-die way of life. Going around in circles seems to be the theme of the movie. As in, is that all there is? Had Monte Hellman directed (and he had already directed Nicholson, brilliantly, in two masterful westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, and also, earlier, Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury), this movie could have been a fascinating existential rumination on … moving, on a road to nowhere (like the title of Hellman’s more recent picture). It’s nowhere near as interesting as anything Hellman would create (and certainly not as beautiful) but that rumination is there, albeit with less cinematic poetry. But, as said, Dern makes for a compelling character, particularly opposite Mitchell. He’s a guy who thinks he’s free but really isn’t. A guy who wants to be an outlaw but also wants to be good. A guy who probably secretly wants to hang it all up and settle down at some point even if he says otherwise. At the end of the picture, Diane Ladd (Dern’s wife at the time – she’s pregnant with their child, Laura) asks his lost biker, after all that has gone down: “Can we help you?” He answers: “No, it’s all right. I can make it myself. I think that’s kind of what it’s all about anyway.” I think he’s right – that is what it’s kind of all about. He thinks. He doesn’t really know for sure. Did Bruce Dern make up that line? It’s a good one.

‘Gee,’ he said to himself out loud, ‘I dunno…’”

When the movie begins, Dern, as biker leader J.J., and his biker crew (including Nicholson as Bunny, wearing those striped pants, and Stanton as a guy who wears a tricked-out suit – he looks nothing like a biker, which works well for his character in this kind of cool yet ironic attire) have ventured into the small town, ready for mischief. Dern bumps into a guy he played football with in high school in Los Angeles – the architect Paul Collier (Mitchell – who is over 15 years older than Dern, so Dern is either supposed to be in his late 40s or Mitchell in his early 30s – or both of them somewhere in between). Paul is about to have a tense reunion with his pregnant interior decorator girlfriend, Karen (Ladd), who sits nervously in a hotel room. She wears a fur coat and carries a Chanel purse. She’s neither outlaw nor hippie. Dern and Mitchell exchange pleasantries – and they really are being pretty nice to each other, even as Dern is calling Mitchell out as something of a square, albeit, gently, but Mitchell doesn’t seem to care. He’s eager to find Ladd. The two men quickly catch up on what each are doing. Dern says, vaguely, “Oh, I’m around, getting by, finding out where things are at.” He invites Paul to hang out later, and rides off, and Paul goes to the little motel Karen’s staying at. They have a lot to talk about. Chiefly, is she going to keep the baby? Are they going to get married?  It’s a strange centerpiece to the movie – this couple attempting to figure out their lives and maybe bringing a child into the world together, as a biker gang has entered the city and will, in no time, terrorize them.

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And they do terrorize them. As Paul and Karen take a drive to talk, the bikers (sans Dern) jump up on their car and start hassling the couple. Dern breaks it up in his attempts to be a peace-maker, a nice guy (again, he went to high school with this fellow, they played football), and they take the couple down to the beach. It all starts going crazy when Bunny wants Karen for a night and is not taking no for an answer – Dern’s closest pal here is being just too much of a predatory rapist scumbag. So, in both a twisted game and an attempt to stall for time (this way Paul, who has been beat up, can run and get help), a race is proposed to win Karen. This isn’t exactly a comforting scenario for Karen and you do worry about her – there’s very little titillation presented in this scenario. You also feel for Paul (Mitchell has some incredibly believable moments of desperation, he’s a wonderful actor). But there’s something so banal about how these outlaws mess with the couple – but because of that lack of excitement, it feels like how something like this would go down. Nothing cool or exploitative-sexy about it. It’s a bunch of yahoos scaring this poor woman with Dern’s J.J. feeling guilty while being something of a coward himself. We are feeling it – something Dern touched on in his autobiography. He said of the movie:

“There is some pretty goddamn good acting going on where things are flying around and people are into moment-to-moment behavior and everybody’s getting chances to do things with a beginning, a middle, and an end to each character in each scene, and nobody’s getting away with anything. There are no star trips going on. Each one of us threw ego out the window and tried to make a movie that made sense. Out of that came a sense of dignity from me and my character just trying to keep from drowning, holding it all together in front of and behind the camera. It was pretty exciting work when you consider it was total chaos.”

He’s right. But no one releasing the picture was grooving on the film’s slow moving middle-aged story about a couple arguing over a baby and possible marriage while bikers terrorize, no matter how great the acting, and the picture was shelved. It was released three years later in 1970 after Nicholson broke out as a star from his memorable turn in Easy Rider and about a few months before Five Easy Pieces (one of his greatest, most defining roleswas released. If anyone went to see Nicholson, however, they got a lot more Dern and Mitchell (and they are both terrific here), but Nicholson stands out as a goofy crazy sinister guy, clearly ad-libbing a lot of weird dialogue. You can’t take your eyes off him. Nicholson has been around a long time, but he’s incredibly creative – on screen and off. And Nicholson, according to Dern, had a lot going on, personally. This was also a tough, transitional moment for Nicholson, some major life changes had put him in a melancholy mood as he was shooting the picture. From Dern’s autobiography:

“I would walk down the beach when we were shooting at Paradise Cove. Sitting between two huge rocks, frustrated, very touchy, down, sad, and angry, was Jack. Tearful some days. Depressed most days. He was going through a divorce from his wife, Sandra, who was the mother of their daughter, Jennifer, who couldn’t have been more than a year and a half old. Jack could still rise above it all, even though he was terribly wounded. I had a love for him from that time on and would do anything to help him out. He was writing a script, The Trip, with a part that he intended to play himself … I’ll never forget that day, when I saw a wreck of a guy writing that script because of the circumstances in his own life, the emotional grips that were on him, the frailty of the human being. I fell in love with Jack, and I realized what an amazing guy he was. My heart went out to him. Then we turned the switch on ten minutes later, and he was there, take after take after take, rising above his own problems.”

Nicholson did indeed write The Trip, but he didn’t get the role he had written for himself – that went to the guy who felt for him all depressed on the set of Rebel Rousers: Bruce Dern. As discussed in Dennis McDougal’s, “Five Easy Decades: How Jack Nicholson Became the Biggest Star in Modern Times”: “Jack wrote a part for himself as Fonda’s guide through the psychedelic wilderness, but Corman awarded Bruce Dern the role instead, having lost faith in Jack’s screen charisma. Although Jack was Dern’s acting equal, other directors wouldn’t hire him, and Corman joined their ranks. He began to think of Jack less as an actor and more as a writer. Dern concurred. ‘The original script that he wrote for The Trip was just sensational.’”

Peter Fonda said even more. From McDougal: “’I don’t believe it,’ a weepy Peter Fonda told his wife, so moved was he when he first read Jack’s script. The Trip ranked with the best of Fellini, he said. ‘I don’t believe that I’m really going to have a chance; that I get to be in this movie. This is going to be the greatest film ever made in America.’”

The movie Dern and Fonda read was not the movie that was, in the end, made. What Nicholson wrote in that script changed significantly once Corman got a hold of it, excising entire scenes and storylines. But the movie became a big hit for Corman, leading to Nicholson writing Psych-Out. Nicholson completed the script in May of 1967, with the title Love is a Four Letter Word. According to McDougal, producer Dick Clark didn’t like that title and changed it to The Love Children, and then Samuel Arkoff, didn’t like that one (he thought it sounded like illegitimate children), and so it was changed to Psych-Out – an ode to Psycho, which only makes sense in terms of the re-release of Psycho (at least Clark, I’m assuming, got some great music acts on the soundtrack – among them, Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Seeds). The script was changed so much that Nicholson’s name was taken off of it. He did get the lead role, this time, however, as Stoney.

Jack Nicholson in the 1968 film Psych-Out
So here we have Stoney and his rock band, Mumblin’ Jim (with friends and bandmates, Ben, played by Adam Roarke, and Elwood, played by Max Julien) living in Haight-Ashbury, just hanging, getting high, playing music, seducing women. A deaf runaway, Jenny (Susan Strasberg – who was also in The Trip), shows up in their coffee house one day – and Stoney is attracted, or at least wants to sleep with her. There’s already a lot more energy to this movie over those doleful bikers in Rebel Rousers – these guys seem to be having some kind of fun, at least in bursts of pleasure with one another (who knows how long those bursts last), and thanks to the presence of the immediately likable and wonderfully natural actors’ Roarke and Julien. And Richard Rush is a far better director, a guy who understood and discussed being anti-establishment (expressed so much better in his powerful Getting Straight starring Elliott Gould. Rush also directed the great Freebie and the Bean and the masterful The Stunt Man). He also works nicely with Laszlo Kovacs, achieving some beautifully shot moments, and fascinating documentary-style footage of the scene. But, just as in Rebel Rousers there’s an edge of … when is this all going to end? This all can’t last. Stoney and Ben and Elwood are nice to Jenny (even when Stoney tries to prove her deafness to his friends by saying, “Let’s kill her and eat her” – what a line, and with Nicholson uttering it – I can never forget that line) and they hide her from the cops who’ve come in looking for her. She’s ditched home to find her brother Steve (we will learn he is Bruce Dern, crazy-eyed and poignant here  – and he is now a kind of mysterious character known as “The Preacher”).

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So, she shacks up at the communal crash pad where Stoney sleeps (and eventually becomes frustrated by their way of living – no one does the dishes) and follows along with some of these guys’ adventures, observing weirdos, watching mock funerals (where the The Seeds appear and play) and meeting philosophical dudes (chiefly, Dean Stockwell, as Dave) along the way. Henry Jaglom plays an artist who completely freaks out on drugs and tries to cut his hand off with a power saw. He hallucinates Stoney and friends as walking corpses. Jenny asks, somewhat sensibly at that moment (he did try to cut his hand off, after all, but one never knows how a trip will go), “Why does he take that stuff?” Stoney answers: “Don’t judge people, Jenny.” And then another guy starts lecturing her about Nietzsche – she walks off. Her brother is “The Preacher.” She doesn’t need any more of this shit.

Stockwell is Dave (I love how simple that name is), the ex-Mumblin’ Jim band member who dropped out because they were too focused on making it. He doesn’t dig that kind of ambition – that kind of ambition that Stoney has – and Stoney is a rather single-minded guy, but it’s hard to blame him seeing as how some of this scene may end up. Cynically, it’s going to probably get bought up or darker forces will enter the fold, so why not get famous? Maybe he can call the shots then? Maybe. He may sleep around and get high, but he’s got some priorities and organization and, deep down, you sense this guy doesn’t want to crash in a dirty house much longer.

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Everyone seems on the cusp of moving on to something else – not necessarily all for the better. Stoney will maybe become famous, or at least, as said, he’ll be striving for it, make a living from music, and Dave just seems like he’s going to … well, he’s going to, by the end, die, actually. His dying words are quite touching: “Reality is a deadly place. I hope this trip is a good one.” And so Dave, though his heart is in the right place, he’s not going to sell out, he’s going to live life on his own terms. It’s interesting to watch Stockwell – he’s waxing philosophical about everything, and he’s critical, but he seems like walking death throughout the movie because it’s going to be hard to really live like that. Stockwell plays this not like a naïve youngster, but as a guy who has been around the block, a guy who is hanging on to his philosophy before he’s killed off. When Stoney asks Dave to play with their band again, he turns them down. “Truth” is brought up:

Stoney: We need you to play with us.

Dave: You still playin’ games, Stoney?

Stoney: Since when is music a game. Playin’ makes me feel good.

Dave: So does a paycheck.

toney: Oh, yeah. The old bad thing. The root of all evil, right?

Dave: No. Not bad or good. There’s only the truth.

Stoney: The truth. Old black and whitey.

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When Nicholson wrote the script, he was experiencing his own kind of journey, with LSD, with life, with acting, with his creativity, with “New Hollywood” (he would go to direct his impressive directorial debut, Drive, He Said, released in 1971 – read J. Hoberman’s excellent piece about that and BBS productions formed by Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Stephen Blaune, from Criterion) and it would have been interesting to see his original work. From McDougal’s book:

“Jack became a Reich devotee in the late sixties for the same reasons he dabbled in Krishnamurti and LSD: to get to the core of his creativity. In conversations with Strasberg during the filming of ‘Psych-Out,’ Jack admitted that his ‘volatile field of energy’ made him hard to live with. He called himself ‘an existential romantic’ pursuing life, liberty, and orgasmic release … As a result of Reich, ‘I don’t falsify sensuality,’ Jack declared. But neither was he just another horn-dog hedonist. Jack’s evolving beliefs still left plenty of room for monogamous intimacy. ‘You can feel the difference when you make love and there’s love there, and when you make love and there’s not love there,’ he said. ‘I’m not a Victorian, but a fact’s a fact.’”

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A fact’s a fact. Old black and whitey… But you get the sense that there was a vibe on set that was seeping into the production. These actors, all of them great actors, have worked so much already, they’re neither young nor old, they are indeed, New Hollywood, and they’ve seen and experienced so much that you can feel the sad cynicism of Easy Rider approaching – and this spirit will seep into even more creative, thoughtful work in the 1970s. Are these guys gonna be free? You see Peter Fonda as Captain America thinking – his ambivalence – while starring in and creating one of the iconic films of the late 60s, and one that is leading us right into the 70s. The shooting of Psych-Out expressed a kind of change-over as well. According to McDougal, there were those in the area who weren’t cool with the production, those that interrupted all of this free and easy peace and love, and director Richard Rush had to turn to a real-life Rebel Rouser for help:

“During filming, Rush again called on Sonny Barger, but this time not for his technical assistance. After panhandlers pulled knives on the cast and crew, Rush hired the Angels to patrol the shoot. The Summer of Love had ended by the time Rush’s cameras rolled in October 1967, and Clark observed that a ‘tougher element’ had taken over the Haight. By the time ‘Psych-Out’ was released in March 1968, peace, love, and understanding had given way to paranoia, lust, and heroin. In the pages of Variety, Clark predicted that hippies would soon fade across America, not just in San Francisco.”

What a bummer. But what an interesting bummer. Because these actors and filmmakers are about to move on to some incredible art and careers, some of the most defining work of the 1970s. But after watching these movies, I’m again thinking of Diane Ladd in Rebel Rousers asking Bruce Dern: “Can we help you?”

“No, it’s all right. I can make it myself. I think that’s kind of what it’s all about anyway.” Kind of.  Because you, everyone, always needs a little help.

Originally published at the New Beverly


One Magical Maggie May Moment

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There's a moment in Heath Ledger's far too short, sometimes brilliant film career that makes me so filled with wistful emotion, that no matter how many times I watch it, I'm still taken aback by its deceptively simple power. It's his final scene in Catherine Hardwicke's great, beautiful, moving Lords of Dogtown, a far too under-discussed picture featuring one of Ledger's most poignant performances.

As Skip Engblom, the crusty, aging uncle/father figure to the kids of Team Zephyr, young Ledger played beyond his years with quirky effortlessness. As in most of his performances, Ledger imbued what could have been a one-note aging stoner dude with sympathy and soul, dignifying Skip with a disarming, surprisingly heart-wrenching end note: Sanding a surfboard in the back of what was once his kingdom, in what could have been an easy, here's-where-he's-at-now scene. Instead, Ledger fills us with a compelling mixture of sadness and a glimmer of hope that Skip will at least survive this life OK. After his boss orders him to finish a surfboard for some kid, the past lord dutifully, but bitterly, complies. Glumly sitting down, Skip slowly perks up to the lovely opening of Rod Stewart's "Maggie May." Pounding to that infectious double drum beat preceding Stewart's passionate "Wake up, Maggie, I think I got something to say to you," Skip, in a flash of understated joy and release, turns up the radio and sings along. I love that Hardwicke gave us this moment -- such a smart scene, so wonderfully directed. She understood why it was important to see this. 

Sublime Ledger is so in the moment and so naturally bittersweet that in mere seconds, he makes one remember just how much those little things in life can affect you -- those times or sensations that either make you crash hard or for one wonderful, ephemeral moment, lift you higher. And then you sit down. Take a drink. And you're back in your reality.